Obscure books by relatively unknown photographers rarely become noteworthy to collectors. Likewise, one will usually not find any significant investment in well-known books by famous photographers – simply too many in print. The sweet spot for the photobook collector is often the obscure or relatively rare book by the known photographer. Enter Mark Cohen and his book Dark Knees.
Dark Knees, published by Xavier Barral Editions, hits this sweet spot bang on. Mark Cohen is a well-known street photographer who has work in countless major collections. Indeed, he is surely among the top twenty street photographers of all time. Dark Knees, on the other hand, is a relatively obscure collection from Cohen. It was published in 2014 to little fanfare both in France and abroad. Initially, the book sold for a modest 45 euro, a great price for a wonderfully constructed hardcover, cloth-bound, collection of Cohen’s most iconic work. Unlike a later publication, FRAME, which was constructed in China (and it shows), Dark Knees oozes quality. One of the most attractive qualities of this book, for me, is the very simple but effective red cloth cover with black lettering. I’m always intrigued and attracted to photo books which do not display photos on their covers. One must “dig in” to see the goods. Additionally, by foregoing an image one the cover, a wouldbe reader is not immediately biased by any one photograph. The cover images from my own two monographs – The Human Fragment and Michael Sweet’s Coney Island, have come to typify my work in a way that I find very narrow and misleading. In this way, Cohen has freed himself by opting to omit a cover image and it works.
When we enter the inner world of the book, we are first confronted with a list of image titles haphazardly scribbled out in Cohen’s own distinctive, if not anxiety-ridden, block-lettered handwriting. That table of contents, of sorts, immediately sets an eery stage for the remainder of the work. Knowing Cohen personally, I can attest to the fact that he is an oddball of a man. A genius and a warm person, yes, but not exactly your run-of-the-mill product of a small Pennsylvania town. He is as quirky of an individual as his photographs. My copy of Dark Knees was signed by Cohen after purchase and that signature – cryptic and imposing – adds an additional level of personality to this rare book. The bleeding of Cohen’s pen through the title page and onto the next has bestowed my copy with its very own DNA.
The photographs reproduced in Dark Knees are both color and black and white, as is Cohen’s work more generally. Although, he has tended to work more in color in recent decades. It should also be noted that Cohen was one the first major photographers to help usher color photography into the art world, another was fellow street photographer, William Eggleston. In this collection, however, the majority of the work is presented in monochrome. Also worthy of noting is the exceptional print quality here. It is no easy feat to publish both color and black and white photographs by way of a single print process and obtain faithful reproductions. However, Xavier Barral Editions achieved just that in Dark Knees.
Interestingly, Dark Knees is published in portrait format even though much of Cohen’s work therein is, in fact, in landscape orientation. This was effected as a way for the publisher to maximize page space. Put another way, every photo in the book is reproduced at the same size and in the same orientation. It is up to the viewer to rotate the book to view any given photo at its proper orientation. Initially, I wondered if this would be an annoyance to viewers. However, as I spent more time with the book, and more time rotating it back and forth, I realized that such a design actually increases viewer engagement. I was physically “interacting” with the book in a way that I would not were all the images already presented to me in their rightful orientation.
In my opinion, Dark Knees is one of the most worthwhile collectable photo books of recent times in the street photography genre. Yet, getting your hands on a copy won’t be easy. The book is now sold out of its first edition and it looks as though it may not go into another printing any time soon. Copies in good condition will surely be over $100, and signed copies are anywhere from $200 to $500. Mark Cohen was a trailblazer in the street genre. He was one of the very first to photograph up-close bits and pieces of the human in its natural habitat. His work has been a major influence on countless photographers, myself included. Should you find yourself presented with an opportunity to buy Dark Knees at a price you can suffer, I’d say, without hesitation, to go for it.
170 x 244 mm
188 pages, 169 photographs
Available where collectable books are sold.